Different name, same game; social media apps make bullying easy for sophs

Every year in August, high schoolers supposedly read the student handbook from front to back. They even sign an agreement with their parents confirming they’ve read it and will adhere to all the policies therein.

Those policies include using “appropriate language, manners and ethics” when accessing technology as SCDS representatives.

“Students should not use email, instant message, blogs, or any other form of social media to hurt others in the SCDS community,” the handbook states.

The handbook also states that students are responsible for how they represent themselves and SCDS on the Internet.

Students are to contact a school employee “if they encounter any security problems, abuses, or misuse of technology resources.”

Brooke Wells, head of high school, said if the use of technology violates any of Country Day’s codes of conduct, the offense is viewed the same as if it had been physical.

“Any time your actions affect the lives of a Country Day kid negatively,” he said, “it becomes an issue of the handbook violation.”

Presumably, the ground rules revolving around social media are clear.

Twenty-eight percent of the 36 sophomores polled on Jan. 4 say they've used the app ask.fm before. Seventeen percent say they've used AfterSchool.
(Graphic by Madison Judd)
Twenty-eight percent of the 36 sophomores polled on Jan. 4 say they’ve used the app ask.fm before. Seventeen percent say they’ve used AfterSchool. Twenty-five percent of the sophomores said they think their class has a history of bullying problems on social media, while 22 percent disagreed, and 53 percent said they didn’t know.

But what happens when social media bullying occurs on an anonymous app, like AfterSchool, which was launched in 2014?

On its site, AfterSchool is described as “an anonymous and private message board for your school…” “a place where you can post freely with anonymity. Now and always.”

Here’s how it works.

A student creates an account that must be linked to his or her Facebook account (to “verify that you actually go to the school that you claim you do”).

Then users can write posts, which can be seen by all other school users – but not school administrators or parents. AfterSchool promises students’ identities will never be revealed.

According to the Frequently Asked Questions page on AfterSchool’s site, users should post “anything that they think their school would enjoy. Keep it fun. Keep it safe.”

Moreover, AfterSchool cautions users not to post anything hurtful.

And at first that’s how it worked.

According to sophomore Lily Brown, at the start students were posting about the attractiveness of other students.

“I was on the app because my friends had told me about it,” she said. “It seemed like it was a harmless, funny thing.

“But then some of them became kind of inappropriate. There was one that was targeting me.”

An embarrassing picture with a mean caption was posted.

“That made me really uncomfortable,” Brown said. She added she couldn’t believe a classmate would say what they did about her.

So Brown spoke with Patricia Jacobsen, dean of student life, about the offensive post.

“I know that (Jacobsen and Wells) knew about the app,” Brown said. “And then I told them what had been posted about me. I think that made them really alert to what things were being posted.”

In the wake of this incident and others, Wells contacted the AfterSchool owner. Country Day has since been cleared from the server, and SCDS accounts can no longer be created.

But Wells knows that blocking access to this one app isn’t really solving the problem.

“It’s the Band-Aid,” he said. “The problem (is) that it’s anonymous and protected by a company whose financial interest is to keep it anonymous.”

Wells said that cyberbullying consequences are an educational issue.

“We’re a school, not a prison,” he said.

Wells also said students need training so that sites like AfterSchool can be used correctly.

“We have to teach them,” he said, “and give them the language and understanding. When is it time to stand up for themselves?  You could just hope that people understand that.”

Enter Pat Reynolds. The newly hired counselor has 37 years of independent-school experience. Most recently, she’s worked at St. John’s School in Houston, as the Upper School counselor.

“As soon as I became head, (a counselor) was an obvious need,” Wells said. “We don’t have much of a wellness program schoolwide.”

Starting on Jan. 4, every six days, freshmen and sophomores have a “skills class” during their free period.

Wells said the classes will present ways to approach educational and peer issues. Topics include how to de-stress, how to treat one another right and how to get help if a student is feeling in trouble – “all the things we’ve been missing in terms of the counseling program.”

“She (will) be able to identify when it’s time to have a significant therapist address the situation,” he said.

The first step, Wells said, is for Reynolds to assess the students in order to identify why they are stressed and what they need and build a program around that.

“It’s going to be created as it goes,” he said. “It’s going to be an organic thing.”

“I want to get a feel for what students need to know,” Reynolds said, “(and) give them the information I know that they might not be aware of.”

Reynolds also plans on “creating an awareness of the good and the bad and present tools so that a student begins to build his or her own toolbox,” she said.

Social media is “a great communicating tool,” she said.

“But, she added, “the trouble comes when people forget about the safety idea. (Social media’s) got good sides, and unfortunately we have to have rules for safety.”

Reynolds maintains that the rules aren’t meant to oppress.

“The majority of the things that happen online that are negative are unintentional and not deliberate,” she said. “There are a few that aren’t, but I would like to think that everyone is trying to do the right thing but they get caught up in the moment.

“In the skills class, we talk a lot about building community and being inclusive in everything you do.”

One of Reynolds’s goals is to get students to help monitor each other but still have a “go-to person when it gets over their heads.”

Questions Reynolds will have students ponder include  “Who’s going to have access to this? Do I know who owns the material that I put here?  Do I remember that nothing can be deleted? Do I understand that someone’s going to read my words without my emotional intent?”

Most importantly, she emphasizes this question: “Am I being mindful and deliberate about my opinion?”

Reynolds said she aims to have students present as many situations as possible.

In one activity, students are given notes.  Some are nice, but others aren’t. Students then must react and respond to them.

“You can’t address every scenario,” she said, “but you can group them together so that when these kinds of things happen, these are some possible tools.”

In the middle school, the technology controls are stricter.

“Cell phones are put away during school hours,” said Ed Bolman, dean of middle-school student life. “They can be accessed before or after school. If (a student’s phone) does go off, there’s a clear consequence. It’s the same for everybody.”

The phone is confiscated and must be picked up a parent.

The guidelines in the entire middle-school handbook, including the social media policies, are covered during orientation and advisory meetings the first week of school.  Aside from a handbook agreement, there is also a separate document outlining responsible use of the iPads distributed to all middle schoolers and the consequences if guidelines aren’t followed.

“We do set a really strict policy,” Bolman said. “If we start out strong with it, hopefully it’ll alleviate things down the road.”

In addition, there are secondary programs (dubbed Man Land and Lady Lounge) that are part of the middle-school curriculum. Growth, hygiene and social responsibility are some of the topics covered.

Despite the thorough coverage of the firm middle-school policies,  cyberbullying still happens off-campus, and Bolman has had to intervene before.

“We are a community,” Bolman said. “If (a problem) is impacting the learning of the children (or) their relationships to each other, then we may need to step in.

“We’re not just educators and teachers. We’re supposed to be mentors.”

Bolman recalled an instance where he had to sit down and talk with a couple of students.  There was a problem surrounding ask.fm, a site where users respond to questions other anonymous users ask them.

“(The situation) had the potential where it could go ugly,” he said. “I read the comments. We created false usernames to go in under it.”

Bolman said the false accounts were made to show students just how easy it is for anyone to enter a site like that and read or make posts.

Reynolds said the anonymity of sites is concerning “because we all know people tend to be more sassy when they (can’t) be seen.”

Ask.fm was particularly popular about three years ago in the middle school.

“Middle schoolers don’t have any experience to base some of their actions on,” Reynolds said. “In middle school, you have fewer tools. (In high school) you have experiences, your brain develops more, and you’re more aware of peers’ opinions. You really get a handle on words, deeds, reasoning power.”

The social media policy in the high school is pretty common, Reynolds said.

While some policies are stricter and others more lenient, “that’s right down the middle of the road.”

Reynolds said that for the time being, she doesn’t have a specific prompt related to the handbook.

“If all goes as it sometimes does,” she said, “students will likely bring up the technology parameters in our discussions as a response to an activity. Or it may be something that comes up when we talk about safety on the net and social media.”

—By Zoë Bowlus

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